Pretty Woman, Dopey Guy … Who Wrote It? Who Cares?

Pretty Woman, Dopey Guy

Fed up with the Force and sick of cyberspace, I now return from galaxies far, far away to three new films that disprove the assumption that romance is dead at the movies. Notting Hill asks the question, Can a narcissistic, self-absorbed Hollywood movie star who looks like Julia Roberts trash her career to find true happiness in the bed of a nerdy, tongue-tied British bookworm? Answer: Yes, if he looks like Hugh Grant. This gooey but enjoyable love story written by Richard ( Four Weddings and a Funeral ) Curtis is, as you might well imagine, a fairy tale contrived to make grown men drool and young girls weep. At the theater screening I attended, they were doing plenty of both.

Notting Hill is a trendy, multiracial bohemian neighborhood in West London messily crowded with a gallimaufry of tattoo parlors, greengrocers, antique shops and Portobello Road flea markets where Mr. Grant, as a charmingly awkward wag, owns a travel bookshop the British could only call “grotty.” On an ordinary Wednesday out of nowhere, the quaint entrance bell tinkles like something out of Charles Dickens and the most famous film star in the world saunters in to browse.

Since Ms. Roberts is pretty much playing herself, it’s not bloody likely she would escape the screaming hordes of paparazzi hounding her through the streets of London and wander off to Notting Hill on a shopping binge alone and unprotected by a bodyguard, or an entourage headed by Pat Kingsley. But this is a fairy tale and I’m getting ahead of the story, which has contrivances beyond belief still to come.

Mr. Grant’s shy, tongue-tied doofus spills orange juice all over her clothes, she goes to his grungy flat to wash up, he shows up for tea at the Ritz and gets mistaken for a member of her press junket, she accompanies him as his mystery date to a catastrophic birthday party and gets plunged into his circle of eccentric friends, and just when the stardust starts to engulf him, Alec Baldwin shows up in a surprise cameo as her boorish, rude, egotistical current squeeze and mistakes him for a hotel room service waiter.

Smitten with a no-win situation, Mr. Grant describes himself as on “love-heroin” and he’s hooked. As we spend the whole movie waiting to see if and how this mismatched love affair will grow beyond the platonic stage, the audience finds itself hooked, too. By the time the paparazzi descend and ruin it, she shows her ugly true colors by worrying more about her own bad publicity than his genuine affection. But never fear. There is a conveniently orchestrated happy ending, as satisfying as it is preposterous. One gets the feeling the glitzy star had a Pretty Woman’s hand in the restructuring of the script, to make us like her at last.

With his acerbic comic dialogue, screenwriter Curtis never lets the film sag, and director Roger Michell’s low-key direction moves us from posh suites at the Ritz to the filming of a lavish Henry James costume epic on Hampstead Heath, with plenty to look at. There’s a very funny intrusion by jug-jawed Welsh actor Rhys Ifans as Mr. Grant’s scuzzy roommate from hell that steals the show, and the two leads, relying more on charm than acting, are sweetly on form. The plot goes to great lengths to be more implausible than even I thought possible, and succeeds. Still, when Juicy Julia stands before the stammering Hugh and pleads for compassion (“I’m just a girl. Standing in front of a boy. Asking him to love her.”) I found myself rooting for them against my better judgment. Forget about reality checks. If you can suspend all disbelief and stifle a laugh, you may find Notting Hill a very pleasant escape from reality indeed.

Who Wrote It? Who Cares?

The Love Letter finds more love on the library shelves when yet another bookstore owner (Kate Capshaw) discovers an anonymous mash note and with an imagination that would rival Emily Dickinson’s, begins to suspect that everybody in the quaint New England village of Loblolly-by-the-Sea is in love with her, including the butch, chain-smoking local eccentric (Geraldine McEwan), the wise-cracking store manager (Ellen DeGeneres) and the volunteer fireman (Tom Selleck), who never experiences anything more exciting than an occasional smoking toaster oven.

When one of her employees, a college student on summer break (Tom Everett Scott), finds the same love letter under a bottle of wine, he thinks his boss sent it to him , and when the bashful Mr. Selleck (playing against type and enjoying himself enormously) arrives to deliver the new smoke detectors, he thinks the boy sent the note to her , and many comic contusions ensue. It’s more than an hour before Blythe Danner and Gloria ( Titanic ) Stuart show up as Ms. Capshaw’s mother and grandmother, respectively, and the movie is over before you ever find out who wrote the letter and why. By that time, you probably will no longer care.

The purpose of the love letter is to wake everybody up in a Cape Cod community too quaint for its own good, but the problem with The Love Letter is that it succeeds in putting the tourists in the audience to sleep in the bargain. Lazily directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Peter Ho-sun Chan, it crawls slower than the Maine lobsters everybody keeps ordering in the local fish shack, and the dialogue is on the level of a sitcom on the Fox channel. It takes the elegant Blythe Danner’s hilarious announcement “Darling, Mummy’s a dyke!” to really startle us awake.

The always-welcome Kate Capshaw is too beautiful to play a repressed divorcée who chooses celibacy over life and wonders where her next kiss will come from, but as co-producer, she must have seen something in this film that never materialized beyond the development stage. The Love Letter was financed by Dreamworks, the company owned by her real-life husband, Steven Spielberg. I’ve always said that the key to Hollywood longevity is marrying right.

Grade-B Bertolucci

Besieged , written and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, is so bland and quiet it’s hard to believe it came from the same man who brought us the rich, poetic imagery of The Last Emperor and the steamy eroticism of The Sheltering Sky . It’s a love story, too, but passion is revealed only through cryptic looks and furtive sighs, and although it is mercifully short, it takes forever to jump-start.

In a promising opening sequence, a beautiful South African woman watches in horror while her schoolteacher husband is politically abducted and violently jailed for his idealism. Driven from her country and rendered almost stupefied by terror, Shandurai (played by the luminous Thandie Newton) immigrates to Rome where she works as a housekeeper for an oddball classical pianist-composer (David Thewlis) to pay her way through medical school.

While he pounds away on his new concerto, she scrubs his floors and polishes his picture frames, and although they rarely speak more than a few words, a mutual curiosity develops. Between Shandurai’s slavery and the musician’s eerie grin and occasional gifts, something is obviously about to happen, but when he finally summons the courage to seize her in his arms it is clear that all Shandurai wants from her employer is his influence.

By the time he miraculously does get her husband out of jail, all that Bach and Chopin has melted her. The final scene-consummation of love in the upstairs bedroom followed by her husband’s sudden arrival on the street below-is shockingly reminiscent of that final unanswered doorbell scene in The Heiress .

For all of its minimal usage of Rome, the film could just as well have been shot in Newark, and with its absence of logic, motivation and character development, what happens on screen is more an outline than a screenplay. Elliptical and elusive, it’s a strange work, shot at odd angles with too many close-ups of eyeballs. But it is weirdly hypnotic, and not a spaceship in sight.

Short Salutes Duke Ellington

Spring is officially here, now that Bobby Short has opened his 32nd season at the Cafe Carlyle. In addition to his usual swinging trio, he’s added a six-man brass choir capable of approximating the pulsating stereophonic crash of the big band era as well as the lush, drawn-out chords of a Southern Sunday school revival meeting.

Indefatigable Bobby knows how to give his fans what they want, from a bruised and burnished “Body and Soul” to a tear-up-the parquet 1922 Harlem show-stopper like Andy Razaf’s “Guess Who’s in Town?” Turning mellow, his piss-elegant “Why Shouldn’t I” would enchant Cole Porter if he showed up suddenly this week (Bobby has recoined the word “insouciant” as his very own trademark) and in a jaunty mood, his inside stories about such show-biz gone-but-unforgotten luminaries as Betty Bruce and Pearl Bailey are lovely ways to eavesdrop.

This year, he makes a special point of celebrating the 100th birthday of the great Duke Ellington with a brilliant musical centerpiece of “Take Love Easy,” “In a Mellotone” and a daunting arrangement of the hard-to-sing “Sophisticated Lady.” Bobby has been wailing so long it’s easy to forget what a first-rate jazz pianist he is, but his thrilling riffs and chord changes on “C Jam Blues” have the stay-upstate crowd cheering. He closes with a full-throttle jam session utilizing all of his eight musicians in solo spots on the Ellington favorite, “Satin Doll.”

This is the most deliciously entertaining time warp in town, and at these prices, it better be. Where else can you spend the equivalent of a disarmament program in Yugoslavia and hear songs about Abélard, Héloïse and Miss Peggy Joyce?